Since my Sourdough Experiment posts last month, I have spent some time reading about sourdough, and also practicing baking with it.
The results have been wonderful, and I have found out a lot of very interesting things about sourdough – the chief one among them being that once you get how it works, sourdough bread-baking is not difficult at all, and is actually quite easy to schedule. The long fermenting times, whether in refrigerator or out, work wonderfully well overnight, which means you do not need to be at home during the day for it to work. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
One of the first questions I encountered while growing my starter was – is an acetone (“paint thinner” or “cheap nail polish remove”) smell from the starter all right, or is it a sign of something wrong? I mean, acetone does not exactly smell great, and it is a poison, so it is hard not to wonder if you are doing something terribly wrong and are about to poison yourself and your loved ones. Searching the net has at first netted me a load of “expert advice” that it’s wrong, bad and it means I should throw my starter away. Why didn’t I? Well, this brings us to my friend Sylwia, who comes from Poland, and who is an Nth-generation traditional sourdough home baker, and her words to me, as she handed me a well-travelled Polish starter piece were: “… and you make sure it has a good whiff of acetone, means it is alive, and then proceed…” So, on I went researching and apparently, those experts who said to throw things away were about as expert as the ones which recommend starting your sourdough starter with commercial yeast – i.e. didn’t know how to find their behind with two hands and a flashlight. The acetone smell is normal to sourdough starter that hasn’t been fed in the last 12 hours, and it is not actually acetone at all – it is ethyl acetate, which is harmless and produced by the acetic acid bacterial strains normally present in sourdough. So therefore, my advice is – unless the starter is full of liquid that’s separated, stinks to high heaven, or is turning weird colours, and as long as it rises happily if you take a bit of it and feed it in a clean jar, it’s just fine.
Another interesting discovery I have made is that not all starters produce same-flavoured bread. As I have mentioned above, my friend Sylwia has brought me a sample of her starter, which according to her has changed hands at least 5 times so far that she knows of (I get to be the at-least-6th proud keeper!). According to her, the tradition in the part of Poland she comes from (near Warsaw) is that upon moving out on your own, your first sourdough starter should come from a piece given to you by a neighbour. I guess in my case, one given by a friend counts as well, and now I maintain two retention-sample jars in my fridge, one jar of Sylwia’s Polish-heirloom one, and another of my homegrown Swedish yeast cultivated from local wheat here in Stockholm. The last bread I’d made was a wheat loaf baked in a pan with a newly-located 12% protein flour and a tablespoon of caraway seeds per 3.5 cup flour batch of dough. It was the best bread I have ever baked, and one of the finest I’d eaten, and now I am experimenting to see what it was that contributed to it being so wonderful – the pan baking, the caraway or the Polish starter. I would guess it was a combination of all three, but I do plan to try to combine the factors differently to see which one makes the most impact/difference. Control group in experimentation is very important! ;)
As to the bread in the photos, it is a 30% wholemeal rye (finely ground rye flour has been used for better texture) with caraway seeds, which I have done in a single rise with an overnight fridge retardation to extend fermentation time. Wheat-fed sourdough starter (my own Swedish one) has been used. This bread was meant to be baked for a Saturday dinner, but I got forgetful and did not feed my yeast until the morning, which meant no sourdough on the day. As a result, I did not start the sourdough until Sunday daytime, and baked it today (Monday) at mid-morning. The approximate recipe and instructions follow – you can skip the forgetting and messing up your schedule bits, it works fine without them!
The basic point about scheduling a single-rise sourdough is this – you need about 12-24 hours for it to rise after the initial knead, rest, knead and shape.
You can start the dough either in the morning, to be raised at room temperature and baked late in evening, or to be put in fridge and baked the next morning. Or you can start it in evening, stick it in fridge overnight and bake it towards lunchtime the next day after letting it come to room temperature. Or you can start it in the evening and leave it to rise out of the fridge overnight (provided your weather is not too tropical), and bake it first thing the next morning. Sourdough is flexible, and since the proofing does not happen too fast, it is not as if missing an hour or two with this will make anything too catastrophic, and certainly not if the dough is left in the refrigerator (what is called a retarded, or cold fermentation – and, as the name implies, is slow and therefore rather controlled).
Double-rise sourdoughs are a little more complex to schedule, and I will be trying them in the future, but in the meantime this works fantastically well (and easily!) for me.
What you need:
- Time: 12 hours to refresh starter, 12-24 hours to ferment, 40 min to preheat oven, 45 min to bake, 1 hour to let cool.
- Optional hand or standing mixer. I use a hand mixer with dough hooks attachment on low speed. I imagine that a paddle attachment on a standing mixer (those who own one would know how to set it up), or simple wooden spoon and hand kneading will also work just fine.
- Sourdough starter, fed (refreshed from fridge) at a ratio of 1:2:3 by volume (1 – starter, 2 – water, 3 – flour) in a clean jar. I used 2 level tablespoons of starter to start with, which makes for 4 tablespoons of water and 6 (level!) tablespoons of flour approximately.
- Other ingredients as follows:
Dough – Ingredients:
- The above starter (all except 2-3 tablespoons for refrigerating for the future bakes)
- 1.5 cup rye flour – I use wholemeal rye, finely ground
- 2 cups high-protein (12%) wheat flour
- 1.5 cups of water (not to be added all at the same time!)
- 1-1.5 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon caraway seeds (if you like them, or fennel, or none at all)
- Mix flours, seeds (if using), and salt in a large bowl.
- Add the starter to the bowl and begin mixing with a wooden spoon or dough hooks on handheld mixer (this is what I use, for lazyness’ sake).
- As the starter works into the flour, begin adding water very slowly bit by bit and mixing on lowest speed of mixer until the dough starts to come together. This should make a fairly stiff dough. Note: Flours vary in humidity and so does air, so if you are out of water and the dough is too dry, add water a teaspoon at a time and mix thoroughly after each addition.
- Remove dough to a lightly floured surface and knead a few times. Mixer should have gotten gluten developed fairly well and this is just to smooth the dough.
- Pre-shape into a round by tucking ends under and stretching top of dough into a ball.
- Rest on floured surface and cover with lightly oiled cling film to avoid drying, and allow to rest for 30-45 minutes to relax.
- In meantime, prepare your baking parchment sheet or lightly grease and thoroughly flour a bread pan (whatever you are using).
- Come back to your dough, give it another short and gentle knead (a few seconds), and shape into a round or a loaf for the pan (as per above).
- Gently place onto parchment or into pan, cover with oiled cling film and allow to rise out of the fridge for a couple of hours.
- Wrap in a plastic bag (over the sheet or pan and the cling film), to avoid drying out.
- Place in the refrigerator overnight.
- In the morning, take the bread out of the refrigerator and remove bag – it should have risen to nearly double in bulk.
- Allow to come to room temperature/proof/rise for 1.5 hours or until doubled or more in bulk from original dough size.
- Preheat oven to 220°C. Remove cling film and slash the loaf to avoid tearing (as you can see, my slashing still needs practice!).
- Set the bread in the middle of the oven, and throw a couple of ice cubes into the oven to create steam.
- Bake at 220°C for 15 minutes, adding 2-3 (small) ice cubes at a time when the last of the water is gone from the bottom of oven.
- Turn the oven down to 190°C and bake additional 20 minutes without ice cubes until bread is medium-brown in colour.
- Using oven mitts, remove bread from oven and from the pan (if using) and tap on the bottom. It should sound hollow when ready. (Bread can be returned to the oven without the pan to brown the bottom and finish baking a little if necessary – think 5-10 extra minutes with bottom heat only.)
- Cool on a rack for an hour, or as long as you can stand the smell without cutting/tearing/biting into it.
Proceed with the tearing, biting, etc. as you like!